‘A Party Without Men’: Shulamith Firestone, Women’s Liberation and the New Left

Alice Echols responds to an article by Eli Zaretsky, here

I have never really stopped thinking about Shulamith Firestone from the time I first picked up The Dialectic of Sex, a book I still assign in classes on feminism and the 1960s. Her death at age 67, in poverty and bad health, remains in some important respects unfathomable to me. Eli Zaretsky and I share an understanding of Firestone’s importance, and I welcome the opportunity to be in conversation with him. When it comes to our political sympathies and the outlines of our arguments, Zaretsky and I are in broad agreement, and I applaud his effort, on the occasion of Firestone’s death, to revisit women’s liberation’s divorce from the new left. That said, my rendering of this story departs from Zaretsky’s in some key respects.

1993 Quill edition

In 1989’s Daring to Be Bad, I devoted considerable space to feminists’ fraught relationship to the new left. I understood their sudden break-up as both necessary and awful. I blamed the sexism of the left, which made women’s desire to organize apart, to speak frankly to each other “out of the earshot of the oppressor,” completely understandable. Those early all-women’s consciousness-raising sessions were incandescent, and Zaretsky is right that young feminists’ ditching of selflessness had a lot to do with why the act of political separatism felt so good. “Ladies never go first,” was Firestone’s sarcastic riposte to the idea, once popular in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), America’s leading new left group, that existing left analysis could adequately comprehend women’s oppression.

Zaretsky maintains that women’s liberationists were alone in counter-posing the struggle against one’s own oppression against the oppression of others. Yet Firestone and her compatriots would never have been able to make the argument for political separatism were it not for the fact that the left had already authorized the intellectual foundations of such a move in the aftermath of Black Power, which so transformed the landscape of radical politics. Advocates of Black Power insisted that white new leftists take the struggle against racism into their own communities, that is, to the root of the problem. Leave the organizing of black people to other black people, went their argument. The new left’s response was to further distinguish itself from liberalism, which it castigated as a kind of social work–a gestural politics rooted in merely helping others–and to recast authentic radicalism as necessarily involving the struggle against one’s own oppression. Staughton Lynd wrote of white radicals’ need to “get away from the role of …auxiliary to a radicalism [whose] center of gravity was in other people’s lives.” Greg Calvert of SDS argued that revolutionary consciousness grew out of “the perception of oneself as one of the oppressed.” [italics mine]

The expulsion of whites from the black freedom movement did not result in any sustained, large-scale campaign to bring white communities into the left. (I was part of one sad-sack effort in suburban Maryland, circa 1969, that involved leafleting teen drive-ins with the lure of free soda pop and anti-war documentaries on weekend nights.) It did result in the ratcheting up of draft resistance, and in the short-lived movement to assert student power, assisted by the deployment of a French import, “new working class theory,” whereby the working class was redefined to include swaths of the middle class. Where this idea of organizing against one’s own oppression really took hold, however, was among women’s liberationists for whom it authorized an autonomous feminist movement. In essence, women’s liberationists divorced the left using arguments first put forward by Black Power and the left.

The secession of women’s liberation from the larger Movement ultimately led to a waning of left-wing ideas within the movement. But even as young feminists insisted upon institutional autonomy from the left, they retained for some time many of the ideological imperatives of the left. Within women’s liberation, participatory democracy, the notion that “the personal is political,” and a deep dissatisfaction with capitalism prevailed. So did some less attractive features of the left, such as vanguard politics, trashing, and the romanticizing of the oppressed–to name only a few. Even as women’s liberation went its own way, organizationally autonomous from the larger Movement, there remained shared ground, intellectually and ideologically…at least for a while.

It is hard to know how history would have played out had a divorce been averted. What if the left had not mistaken macho posturing for radicalism? Would feminists have been less likely to say “goodbye to all that,” including the left? What if the left could have evolved in conditions other than the apocalyptic-like white heat of the late 1960s? Could we have heard one another? Would Shulamith Firestone have counseled a path other than “Fuck off, Left”?

I don’t know, but what I do know is that lots of women who were caught up in those difficult times when women’s liberation and the left battled each other, were not eager for a full-on divorce, maybe just a separation. Of course, there were plenty of women for whom separatism was a blissful tonic of Herland – all women all the time. This was especially true for the many of us who were becoming lesbian. But there were many, many other women for whom the break-up with the left, and the injunction against heterosexual relationships that followed, was full of heartbreak. Indeed, none other than Shulamith Firestone was dismayed when, in 1968, some of those in New York Radical Women suggested the group sponsor an all-women’s dance. “What’s a party without men?” she objected. This was before heterosexual women were made to feel like deficient feminists, when the predominant feeling was that men should be challenged rather than abandoned wholesale. Indeed, in The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone had argued that women’s great leverage over men in the coming feminist revolution was that they could withhold sex – an idea that developed zero traction in the U.S. More to the point, the possibility that feminism could be a movement of sisters and brothers, which as historian Christine Stansell argues in her brilliant book, The Feminist Promise, sometimes happened in the past, remained out of reach.

I think it’s fair to say that Zaretsky views the move towards fighting one’s own oppression more negatively than positively. He contrasts it to the “consciousness of the great early movements of 1960s,” which, he argues, pivoted on the “shattering of social identity.” And yet the effort to achieve a sense of “solidarity with people utterly unlike oneself” was sometimes made in cringe-making ways. Think of those male SDS’ers who tried to organize the urban poor and sometimes got no further than mimicking the accents and swagger of neighborhood men. As Grace Hale has recently argued in A Nation of Outsiders, young white radicals’ romanticizing of African-Americans was problematical, not the least because it lost sight of the real people who were the objects of fascination and emulation. So while organizing around one’s own oppression could indeed lead towards a kind of solipsism, the impetus to identify with the romanticized outsider had distinct drawbacks, too.

Nonetheless, the repercussions of this split have been immense, as Zaretsky’s essay suggests. We live today in a culture where we are left to our devices, made to go it alone. And this brings me to Firestone, who wrote Dialectic in part to address the miseries and indignities of single life. Her ongoing difficulties in connecting with others, in being part of something larger than herself, is not reducible to any one source, but one thing is for sure, they were not made easier by living in a post-Movement world.

Mandy Merck’s response to Zaretsky’s article can be found here

Tanya Serisier’s response to Zaretsky’s article can be found here

One Comment

  1. Thanks a lot for this Alice, a great read. I am very new to understanding feminist theory and practice, and found this a great introduction to how the feminist movements broke with the left. I am certainly going to go and pick up a copy of The Dialectic of Sex as soon as possible! I shall see you around USC no doubt. Matt Ripley, 1st year sociology grad student.

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